Tuesday 21 November 2017

Tony Ward: Why it's time for Kidney to give youth its fling

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If the objective of last Friday's Wolfhounds blowout was to highlight the strength in depth of Irish rugby, then it failed markedly. The gap between provincial standard and full-blown Tests (with the exception of Heineken Cup ties) is still massive, and beyond most.

Eleven of those involved against the Saxons have been added to the 22 who were not on duty in Galway. On Friday's evidence, it is a flattering number, due as much to the propping nightmare bedevilling Irish rugby as anything else.

Tom Court, Dave Kilcoyne, Declan Fitzpatrick and Michael Bent have been added to the two set in stone to start in Cardiff, Cian Healy and Mike Ross.

Ross is probably the least mobile member of Declan Kidney's squad but he is by some way its most valuable. We dread the consequences of him getting injured – look what happened at Twickenham last year.

The fact that forwards of the quality of James Coughlan and Tommy O'Donnell can't make the cut while some clearly below-average front-rowers must be included tells you everything you need to know of a dilemma not of the head coach's making.

Coughlan (Ireland's best player at the Sportsground) and O'Donnell are unlucky in that even without Stephen Ferris, the back-row options are incredibly strong.

Back-row and wing are the two areas of greatest contention as Kidney sits down to pick his side for the Millennium Stadium.

Others to impress for the Wolfhounds included Luke Fitzgerald (well on the way back), Dave McSharry (defensively) and Devin Toner, as well as the back-row of Kevin McLaughlin, O'Donnell and Coughlan.

Hooker Mike Sherry, too, deserves inclusion albeit in a position in which we are top heavy with alternatives. If only it were anywhere near the same at tighthead prop.

With our only international quality No 3 (Ross) in situ, we are in with a shout in all five matches. Without him we are in deep trouble. It's as simple as that.

Beyond that, momentum is key. Win in Cardiff and we're up and running; lose and we're chasing our tail. Defeat would not only end our Triple Crown aspirations, it would eat away at confidence and put everybody, not least this management, under immense pressure.

Beat the reigning Grand Slam champions on their own patch and, much like getting the better of the French in the opening game in 2009, it would feed into morale and establish that all-important feel-good factor.


Everything focuses on winning that opening game. It is the same for Wales, even more so given they are at home and are following a disastrous autumn campaign – which left them on a run of seven successive defeats.

By contrast, Ireland are in a positive frame of mind following an outstanding November success over Argentina.

I hasten to add, there is no room for complacency given that the Welsh have won the last three games between the sides, in Cardiff, Wellington and Dublin.

They are having their injury problems, particularly in the second-row, but we are without Paul O'Connell, Ferris and Tommy Bowe – three surefire Lions for Australia were they fit.

Despite that well-documented innate conservatism, there are definite signs that Kidney's mindset is in transition. There was a freshness in attitude and execution against the Fijians and, particularly, Argentina.

There are likely to be changes from the XV that took to the field against the Pumas at full-back, both wings (one positional), outside-centre, hooker and back-row.

At full-back Rob Kearney is a must, freeing Simon Zebo to return to the wing where, on form, he deserves the nod on the left ahead of the revitalised Fitzgerald and Keith Earls.

Bowe's injury necessitates change on the right and I would opt for Craig Gilroy, irrespective of how Mark Anscombe views it in Ulster, where Bowe and Andrew Trimble are his first-choice pairing.

Zebo and Fitzgerald are natural left-sided players, with Earls the most versatile option in terms of cover beyond out-half.

Rory Best will replace Richardt Strauss at hooker, with Mike McCarthy rightfully alongside Donnacha Ryan in the second-row.

In the back-row, Sean O'Brien will return alongside Jamie Heaslip, with the only decision whether he's at blindside or openside. If O'Brien is wearing No 6 then Chris Henry (in outstanding form for Ulster) will wear No 7, making for an extremely mobile back-row to compete with Welsh strength in that area.

If O'Brien is at No 7, then Peter O'Mahony will continue to shore up the blindside, although he too is more than capable of putting himself about.

On the bench, it's two from Kilcoyne, Court, Bent and Fitzpatrick as cover for Healy and Ross, with little to choose between them

The other challenging replacement decision is for utility cover beyond the halves.

Fergus McFadden is the obvious choice and he too, despite a cut in game time of late, has been consistently good for Ireland, Ireland 'A' (v Fiji) and Leinster.

The problem for Kidney is what to do with Earls? Does he play him on the wing (a no for me) or name him as cover (for every three-quarter position plus full-back) ahead of McFadden?

Fitzgerald is now very much back in the mix. I would love to see him back on board but a modicum of patience may be required.

Irish Independent

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